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Implicit and Explicit Knowing


I am a whitewater kayaker. Kayaking is as much a mental as a physical sport. One way that this is obvious is how people respond when they unintentionally flip over—and are now bumping through a rapid upside down. For me, there is an immediate, “This is bad! I can’t breathe! I’m going to drown!” voice screaming in my head. The logical solution, argues this voice, is to pull open my skirt and separate from my boat. This solves the breathing problem, as I can get my head above water. But, it causes a new problem: I am now in turbulent water without a boat—and swimming a rapid is harder and more potentially dangerous than kayaking one.


If I can wait a split second before I pull my skirt, I can hear the second voice, “You are actually okay at this moment. There is some time. It would be better to roll than to swim.” Having learned to roll a kayak, I can usually right myself. Still in my boat, I can now breathe—and proceed down the rapid with the advantage of being in my kayak.


The shouting survival voice is an example of implicit memories, which contain procedural knowledge. Implicit memories include our knowledge of how to do something (procedures) and—most importantly—our assumptions, expectations, values, and inclinations. Implicit memories house our fears. Often, our implicit memories are formed early in life, and we can’t recollect the experiences which formed them. I know that I can’t breathe under water. I can’t remember when I learned this, but probably at quite a young age. Guiding my response to the procedural knowledge that “my nose needs to be out of water to breathe”—and why kayaking is a mental sport—are my implicit assumptions and expectations in a situation. A big part of why the “Escape now!” voice is so strong in my head is that fear that I may not be able to roll up, grounded in an assumption that I am not good at sports, which I developed in childhood.


The second, calmer voice represents my explicit memories, which contain declarative knowledge. These are things we can recall and explain. I remember learning to roll a kayak; I can explain the steps that will lead to righting my boat. I also know that it is safer and more fun to kayak than to swim turbulent rapids.


Implicit memories and their procedural knowledge usually have more impact on our lives than explicit memories and their declarative knowledge because they guide our interpretation of new information. Implicit memories are difficult to articulate as they are designed to operate below our conscious awareness. However, with effort we can analyze and articulate our procedural knowledge and implicit memories, at least imperfectly. This allows our explicit memories to challenge implicit memories that may no longer be serving us well—including fear-based assumptions. I am a certified whitewater kayaking instructor, who can roll her boat. I don’t need to define my athletic abilities by elementary kickball games.


Similarly, in relationships, when there is conflict or we feel shunned, our fears are activated and our implicit memory system can—at lightning-speed—jump to the conclusion that we are in grave danger—without our conscious awareness that we are feeling threatened, much less why. When we can observe this response in ourselves and slow down, the second voice, our explicit memory system, can assess our implicit assumptions and decide if this situation calls for immediate defense (our flight, fight, or freeze response), or if there are some other behaviors that might serve us better. Philosopher Rolf Johnson states, “Although it is certainly not impossible to both love and fear the same object, doing so creates a complex and conflicted state in which one simultaneously seeks and avoids the same object.” As this is what we are doing constantly, we are always in a ‘complex and conflicted state’ seeking and avoiding each other.


As we become aware of our automatic responses, our stories are rewritten, transforming our implicit responses to similar future events. These transformed reactions lead to new proclivities and ultimately, transformed behaviors and response habits—both in our kayaks and in our relationships. The work is not to control our emotions and other automatic responses—that is impossible, anyway. Rather, the work is to gain loving awareness of our thoughts and emotions, their origins (situational, personal, and evolutionary), and our current options—and then choose how we wish to respond.


When we acknowledge and harness our fears but do not let them obstruct our love, we experience a gradual cessation of the delusions in our lives. These moments of non-delusion add up, like luminous pearls on a string, into lucidity, which leads to discernment, wise speech, and right action. Wisdom is acknowledging and loving our imperfect, ever-changing selves; recognizing and loving these same facets in everyone else; and delighting in the majesty of relationships. There is a beautiful Buddhist metaphor that I think is applicable to love and fear: just as the moon can be obscured by the clouds, we can be unaware that we possess all the knowledge and wisdom that we need. Similarly, a great glowing love is already within us, but is sometimes obscured by the clouds of fear.

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